My love of Disney has always been around, and in recent years I have had unbelievable opportunities to get even closer to the people and the very things that make Disney animation so timeless. In July I had the opportunity to meet and interview the writers and directors of The Little Mermaid, John Musker and Ron Clements, as they talked about the movies they had worked on together (Aladdin, Hercules, The Little Mermaid and Princess and the Frog). It occurred to me that the reason Princess and the Frog felt so much different than the other animated classics that had been before it, and it was because of them. Disney as a whole has its own magic, but it’s the people behind the scenes that bring their own unique perspective and feeling to a film — and it wasn’t until I made the connection with Ron and John that I realized the films and shorts that I am most loyal to are generally connected behind the scenes with writers, directors, producers and story artists.
If you’ve watched all the Disney classics, then you’ll know there is a bit of a Disney “dark age” that started right after Walt passed away in 1966 and ended with The Little Mermaid in 1989.
Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks? Bill Walsh and Robert Stevenson. I love them both.
Meet the Robinsons has a random collection of writers, producers and directors, but it is one of my most very favorite Disney movies. Brother Bear, Bolt, and The Emperor’s New Groove share many of the same talents as Meet the Robinsons and they all share the same quirky plot lines and loyal fans, although they are less well-known compared to other Disney classics.
Which brings me to Lauren MacMullan and Jennifer Lee, two names that are hopefully going to be synonymous with Disney for a very long time. Both women worked on Wreck-It Ralph and I was able to meet with them in July. Once Lauren was introduced to us, she gave us a little background on her directorial debut, Get a Horse, a short that appears before “Frozen” in theaters. Her Disney passion lies within the old black-and-white shorts by Walt Disney himself. Her exact words were, “How do we get back to THAT Mickey?” So she came up with an idea to do just that, only it became so much more; she went back into the extensive audio archives and found a way to voice her 2013 Mickey with actual voice of Walt Disney himself. The group I was with was the first group in the United States to ever view the entire short of Get a Horse, and I was in tears the entire time.
It was easily one of the most transforming Disney moments of my life, to be there in that moment hearing Walt Disney’s voice and witnessing just how far Disney animation has come. (I don’t want to spoil it, but the short alone is worth the movie ticket to see Frozen.) Lauren MacMullan became a hero to me in less than 5 minutes; she did something that had never been done before and she and her team did it flawlessly.
Next they brought out Jennifer Lee who walked us through the story of Frozen, explaining how the story came to be and how the characters were developed. She explained the detail to the writers went to make everything in the movie as accurate as possible — from walking through snow in dresses, visiting an ice hotel in Canada, to shaking an actual jar of lutefisk to make sure they got the sloshing and jiggling just right. I could tell she knew these characters as well as she knew her closest friends, and the way she talked about them was just ever-so-slightly different than the way Ron and John talked about Ariel, Sebastian, and Flounder. The movie itself is far and beyond anything I could have ever imagined it being, from seeing it in the rough final stages, to seeing the fully completed film last week, Disney has done it right. As reviews have trickled in from friends all over the country, I’ve noticed that even the toughest Disney critics have fallen in love with this movie.
So what’s different? How did Disney do it so right this time?
The LA Times would like to submit that it is the women in directors’ chairs that make all the difference, and will be making the difference from here on out.
In all the years of Disney animation could this have really been the first time a woman has sat in the director’s chair? Disney Animation Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter said “Animation has been a male-dominated industry for a long time, not that it’s been an old boys’ club. There have been real superstars that were women. But now you’re seeing more women in supervisory and leadership roles, in story, in layout, in animation; in the production side there’s a lot of very strong women. It’s been growing.”
Female directors Lee and MacMullan have been too busy making amazing movies to really care about numbers and statistics, in Lee’s words “(being the first woman to do something alone at Disney) wasn’t my top concern anyway.” Even the movie that forever changed the image of a Disney princess, Brave, has a female (Brenda Chapman) credited under directors, although she was not the lead director. With the rise of female writers, directors and story artists, Disney has started to undergo a change from traditional fairy tales where the prince saves the princess and they live ‘happily ever after’ to strong female characters who save themselves and don’t need a boy to rescue them.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have a soft spot for Cinderella, Snow White and Aurora — but with two little girls of my own I’m really enjoying this new group of princesses who beat bad guys with frying pans, shoot a bow and arrow while riding bareback, get gas, and take care of themselves. I also love being able to look at my daughters and know there is a place for them and their unique sense of creativity and storytelling, right up there with everyone else — both young and old as well as male and female.
Have you noticed a gradual change in Disney’s storytelling as it relates to gender and stereotypes?
Find more of Casey’s writing on her blog moosh in indy. She’s also available on twitter, facebook, flickr and Instagram. If you can’t find her any of those places? Check the couch, she’s probably taking a nap.
Image Credit: Disney